Murshidabad: The forgotten capital of Bengal

Murshidabad’s Hazarduari Palace at dawn. Photograph: Neeta Das

A CITY OF silk and splendour, glory and decline – Murshidabad is the forgotten capital of Bengal. Eager to retell the city’s story, Indian book publishers, Marg, have recently published a 136-page, highly illustrated book that explores this great but little-known former capital. Entitled Murshidabad Forgotten Capital of Bengal, the book fills a crucial gap in the market as while the British capital of Calcutta has been the subject of numerous works, until now very little has been published on Murshidabad. Edited by Neeta Das and Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, the book tells the tale of Murshidabad through chapters split into people (the nawabs and Jains), places (palaces, rajbaris and mansions and religious buildings) and arts and crafts (textiles, painting and ivory-carving).

It expertly reveals what life was like for the city’s residents – the nawabs and the British, the Jain merchants and bankers – from the past, and also to a lesser extent, to the present day. The region’s unique architecture, painting, textiles and crafts industries are all highlighted too and are explained in great detail, accompanied by illustrations and photographs.

A place of strategic location and great importance in the first half of the 18th century, Murshidabad was, at one time, compared to London because of its extravagant buildings and merchants. Crucially, its prime location, on the Bhagirathi River north of Calcutta, meant that goods could be moved easily to and from the city. Complementing the river, the Grand Trunk Road, Uttara Patha (‘road to the north’), was also easily accessible from Murshidabad.

Between 1653 and 1688 the Dutch, British, Armenians and the French founded their trading settlements in the district, fully aware of the city’s great potential. In 1704, the Nawab of Bengal transferred his capital here from Dhaka, also aware of the city’s resources. However, in 1757 a succession of military rows between the Nawab and the English East India Company resulted in the rise of English rule in Bengal.

Although the town of Murshidabad continued to house the residence of the Nawab, in 1772, Calcutta was declared the capital of British India and political power left Murshidabad.Even in this time of decline and difficult change, the building of extravagant palaces within Murshidabad did not cease. The foundation stone of the magnificent Hazarduari Palace, also known as the Palace of a Thousand Doors, was placed as late as August 9, 1829. Built by architect Colonel Duncan Macleod of the Bengal Engineers, under the reign of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah of Bengal, even today its splendour has not been lost.

This classical style palace is most noted for its doors, of which there are a thousand, some real, some not – it is estimated, in fact, that up to 900 are false. Housing an astonishing array of antiquities from the 18th and 19th centuries throughout its 114 rooms, the palace is still visited today by those keen to see the collections and the famous clock tower within the grounds. The grand staircase is believed by some to be the biggest in India and the Madina Mosque, which lies nearby, also attracts attention. Today, there is not a great deal of opportunity to purchase souvenirs from this unique place, but visitors can buy brass-work, sandalwood- work, and shola-work (a description of which is below) from the row of stalls along the bank of the palace.

Visitors to Murshidabad should also take time to learn the history of Namak Haram Deorhi (also known as the Traitor’s Gate). Located just opposite the Jafarganj Cemetery in the Lalbagh area of town, this was the palace of Mir Jafar, the first Nawab of Bengal under British Company rule in India. It was his desire to become a Nawab of Bengal that led him to make a secret pact with Robert Clive which, after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, established British rule in Bengal which, of course, eventually stretched over much of India. For this act the words ‘Mir Jafar’ are now synonymous with the word ‘traitor.’

Kathgola Palace – another must-visit – is where William Watts (assigned by Robert Clive to act as the representative of the Company to the Nawab’s court at Murshidabad) met Mir Jafar, to discuss payment linked to the Battle of Plassey. It is a four-storey palace with an ornamented facade located in Kathgola Gardens which was once famous for its black roses. Inside lies a wealth of is valuable paintings, mirrors and priceless furniture. Outside there is a traditional baoli, or step-well. Many other, smaller palaces lie in ruin today in and around Murshidabad and the many descendants of the nawabs still live here, although not in the same style and splendour their ancestors were accustomed to.

Murshidabad is perhaps best known though for one man: Murshid Quli Khan (1665-1727), the first Nawab of Bengal. Later known under his grand, imperial title ‘Motamul-ul-Mulk Alauddowla Jaffer Khan Noseri Nasir Jang’ (‘guardian of the country, promoter of the state, helper in war, the defender’) he reigned over Bengal, as well as Bihar and Orissa, from his capital Murshidabad. A grand and flamboyant ruler, he is also noted for introducing the ‘Zurbe Murshidabad’ coin and for building the Katra Masjid (under which he is buried today).

When Calcutta was declared the capital of British India (India’s ‘city of cities’) Murshidabad found itself eclipsed and its power slipped. The book notes that ‘Deserted buildings were being swallowed up by rampant vegetation, lakes silted up, and the weavers’ looms were silent.’  Through it all though, and helped by the vast wealth of the local nawabs, its traditions have quietly lived on and Murshidabad remains a city of great craftsmanship, palaces and heirloom silk.

Local artisanal work in Murshidabad includes the unusual shola pith work. Shola is an off-white porous wood which is carved into delicate objects of art. West Bengal is known for shola as its wet humid climate is beneficial for this herbaceous plant, which tends to grow wild in marshy wetlands. The craftsmen work with the pith (usually around an inch in diameter) from the core of the plant which looks a bit like styrofoam. Its malleability, texture, lustre and sponginess makes it ideal for artisans to work with.  Popular decorative pieces make from shola-work include headdresses for bridal couples and huge decorative backdrops made for Durga Puja celebrations. In the book, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones notes that shola pith was ‘once used by the British in pith helmets (sola topis).’

Murshidabad is also famous for its saris. Specifically the Baluchari sari which has a much sought-after gauze like texture-ornamented with gold patterns woven in.

Around 200 years ago the art of Baluchari was commonly practised in a small village called Baluchar in Murshidabad. It was brought there by the first Nawab of Bengal who had witnessed the craft in Dhaka. He encouraged the industry to flourish, but following a devastating flood – which submerged Baluchar – the industry moved to the Bankura district. Later, the trend further declined, especially during British rule, where, due to political and financial reasons, many craftsmen gave up the trade. Today, some of these highly skilled artisans remain in the region.

India has long been a major centre for ivory carving and Murshidabad in particular can lay claim as a centre for this controversial art form. At the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata a set of ivory table and chairs is an exquisite example of carving done by Murshidabad carvers, who tend to use the solid end of the elephant tusk to work with. The carvers would copy European styles of furniture using local materials. These were western forms with unusual decorations which reflected the fusion of tastes at Indian courts during that time. Furniture makers in Murshidabad, usually working on commission, made small quantities of western-style pieces. Pieces were also sometimes given as gifts. For example, Mani Begum – widow of Mir Jafar, the Nawab of Murshidabad – gave ivory pieces as part of a special gift to Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India.

As tourism, cultural interest and research continues to lay its focus mainly elsewhere in India, it is clear that the time has come for areas like Murshidabad to deserve more recognition and visitors.

As Rosie Llewellyn-Jones writes in the book, ‘More could be made of the river. Local crafts could be revived and properly marketed. A detailed street map showing historic sites would help to bring the city back into focus. If this book succeeds in at least awakening an interest and a desire to visit Murshidabad, then it will have fulfilled its purpose.’ There is no doubt that this beautiful book will pave the way for more attention to be paid to this deserving, fascinating and marginalised region.

CAROLINE EDEN